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Caste, The Origins of Our Discontents

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In Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, Isabel Wilkerson invites her readers to reconsider their inherent understanding of American societal layers.

Drawing upon her meticulous research into the centuries-old caste system of India and her analysis of the relatively short-lived caste constructions of Nazi German, Wilkerson then applies the hierarchical principles of caste to the United States of America. She concludes, quite convincingly, that our country just as strictly defines itself in terms of caste as did India and Nazi Germany.

She explains, “Caste is structure. Caste is ranking. Caste is the boundaries that reinforce the fixed assignments based upon what people look like.” Thus blackness, in America, necessarily situates all Black Americans, no matter how smart, how well-educated, how accomplished, in the lowest caste of all. “Caste is the granting or withholding of respect, status, honor, attention, privileges, resources, benefit of the doubt, and human kindness to someone on the basis of their perceived rank or standing in the hierarchy.” Most importantly, “Casteism is the investment in keeping the hierarchy as it is in order to maintain your own ranking, advantage, privilege, or to elevate yourself above others or keep others beneath you.” Such a conclusion should be, must be, a clarion call to us all.

Wilkerson’s personal airport experiences, scattered throughout Caste, support her thesis and reinforce the perniciousness of caste. A well-dressed frequent flyer with all the credentials of someone from the uppermost American society, Wilkerson nonetheless is black. At various times in the book, she is told she doesn’t belong in a first-class or a business seat, she is hassled by airport security and by muscular drug agents for no discernible reason other than her color; she is rarely helped with her luggage and often is elbowed aside by fellow passengers and flight attendants alike. I mention these examples because just this morning, I read a blog in HuffPost—“I’m A High-Achieving Black Woman In Largely White Spaces. And I’m Exhausted.”—by Judy P. D’Agostino, who fits Isabel Wilkerson’s profile and who describes similar incidents with similarly painful psychological overtones. Neither woman, no matter how accomplished, can escape her color, her perceived societal rung, her caste.

Wilkerson defines what she characterizes as the eight pillars of caste. Some are obvious, some more insidious. Each is described in its own chapter: “Divine Will and the Laws of Nature,” “Heritability,” “Endogamy and the Control of Marriage and Mating,” “Purity versus Pollution,” “Occupational Hierarchy,” “Dehumanization and Stigma,” “Terror as Enforcement,” “Inherent Superiority versus Inherent Inferiority.” Anyone paying any attention to today’s Black Lives Matter movement can see the relevance of Wilkerson’s pillars and how they underpin the frustrations that black Americans feel every time they step outside their homes.

Caste, with its perceptive dagger of a subtitle—“The Origins of Our Discontents”—should be read by every thoughtful American. I don’t know when I’ve read a book that has made me think and rethink not only what we are doing in this country today but also what we have been doing since the inception of the nation. Quite clearly, our nation was founded on a strict caste system that the Civil War supposedly upended. Instead, the post-Civil War reconstruction days codified that system in ways that remained fixed until the 1960s and that even now define how too many Americans perceive our black sisters and brothers. One of the book’s observation clarifies not only the Trump phenomenon and how close he came to re-election but also a substantial pillar on which our nation has been built. The real question would be, someone finally asks Wilkerson, “if people were given the choice between democracy and whiteness, how many would choose whiteness?” Wilkerson, who published Caste months before 73,000,000 Americans cast their votes for whiteness, lets the question hang in the air. I cast my vote for all of us to read, and to contemplate at length, Caste.  – Ann Ronald

Also available by Isabel Wilkerson: The Search for Other Suns.

Bookin’ with Sunny enthusiastically supports Independent Bookstores and Public Libraries.



One Response

  1. Great review Ann and I agree everyone should read this book. However, when I finished the book I was a bit depressed because caste is so ingrained in our society I felt it will take a few more generations before the caste system is truly eliminated.

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